Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘data visualization’

08 SEPTEMBER, 2011

A Brief Visual History of Robots in a Matrix of Creepiness & Intelligence

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What Louis XV has to do with H.G. Wells and the hazards of mechanical animation.

Ed.: The lovely and talented Michelle Legro is an associate editor of the history and ideas magazine Lapham’s Quarterly. In her inaugural piece for Brain Pickings, she offers an exclusive snippet of LQ’s forthcoming Fall issue, which explores the future, comes out on September 15, and is an absolute treat of curiosity and fascination — get your hands on it by subscribing today. It’ll be your finest gift to yourself in a long while, we promise.

Talos, the automaton forged for King Minos to protect his kingdom from pirates and invaders, may have been the first robot in recorded literature — made of metal, its veins flowed with ichor, the divine blood of the gods. The Golem of Prague was brought to life to protect the city’s Jews, but it was rendered lifeless when it threatened innocent lives. These proto-robots provided an assurance that one day in the future, statues would move—whether they would protect us or rise against us, it was hard to tell.

“The Future” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly collects more than eight-thousand centuries of forward-looking thought, thanks to the inclusion of both Aeschylus Cassandra and H.G Wells‘ time traveler. Also from the issue, this matrix of historical robots organized by their relative intelligence and creepiness.

You’ll also find two automatons from eighteenth century Europe: the Digesting Duck, which ate and then defecated its meal, and the Chess-Playing Turk, which once played a game with Napoleon. These mechanical parlor tricks captivated court life and inspired writers with uncanny nightmares of moving statues. (Think of the mechanical beauty Olympia from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s early-nineteenth-century horror story “The Sandman.”)

One robot unfortunately not included on the matrix was Louis XV‘s special likeness of his mistress Madame du Barry by wax sculptor Philippe Curtius, better known as the teacher of young Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud. The wax figure is the oldest in the collection of Tussaud’s London museum, surviving both the French Revolution and a devastating 1925 fire. Laid out on a divan, du Barry appears in the throes of a ravishing dream, her eyes are closed but her chest heaves up and down thanks to a mechanical engine devised by Curtius.

This simple device imparted a serene animation to the lifelike wax, an impression not lost on Louis’s courtiers, who called the sculpture “The Sleeping Beauty.” While her wax-figure has slept quietly for over three hundred years, du Barry herself came to a less quiet end. After her banishment from the court of her lover’s grandson Louis XVI, she was captured by the Jacobins and dragged kicking and screaming to the guillotine.

For a complete history of robots, automatons, and moving statues there is no better book than Gaby Wood’s Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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31 AUGUST, 2011

Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns for the Information Age

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What the basis of Buddhism has to do with Jack Kerouac, poverty in Italy and Alice in Wonderland.

Data visualization is a running theme of visual literacy here, and Manuel Lima has been one of its biggest advocates since 2005 when, shortly after graduating from the Parson School of Design, he launched VisualComplexity — an ambitious portal for the visualization of complex networks across a multitude of disciplines, from biology to history to the social web. This month marks the highly anticipated release of Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information — a rigorously researched, beautifully designed, thoughtfully curated anthology of the world’s most compelling work at the intersection of these two relatively nascent yet increasingly powerful techno-cultural phenomena, network science and information visualization.

Philipp Steinweber and Andreas Koller

Similar Diversity, 2007

A visualization of the similarities and difference between the holy books of five world religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.

Marco Quaggiotto

Knowledge Cartography, 2008

Screenshots taken from ATLAS, an application developed to explore the possibilities of applying cartographic techniques to mapping knowledge. ATLAS allows users to list their biobibliographic references and to map them according to four main rendering modes: semantic, socio-relational, geographic, and temporal.

From the sacred meaning of trees and their age-old use as classification systems to the science behind network thinking to the stunning and visually expressive products of cutting-edge digital visualization, Lima — author, designer, and deep thinker — not only explores the multiplicitous allure of networks, but also crafts an important analog artifact to contain these rapidly vanishing digital ephemera. (You know, in case you were wondering why computational creativity should belong in a book.)

As the book gained shape, it quickly became clear that it was not just about making the pool of knowledge more accessible, but also saving it for posterity. As I reviewed projects to feature in the book, I was astounded by how many dead links and error messages I encountered. Some of these projects became completely untraceable, possibly gone forever. This disappearance is certainly not unique to network visualization — it is a widespread quandary of modern technology. Commonly referred to as the Digital Dark Age, the possibility of many present-day digital artifacts vanishing within a few decades is a considerably worrying prospect.” ~ Manuel Lima

From the Bible to Wikipedia edits to the human genome, the gorgeous and thought-provoking visualizations in the book will make you look at the world in a whole new way, and the insightful essays accompanying them will vastly expand your understanding of the trends and technologies shaping our ever-evolving relationship with information.

The tree of the Two Advents

Joachim of Fiore, Liber figurarum, 1202

This remarkable figure presents the main characters and institutions of the Christian salvation history. From bottom to top: Adam, Jacob the Patriarch, Ozias the Prophet, and Jesus Christ (repeated twice). The figure of Christ dominates the center of the genealogical tree (representing the first coming, or Redemption), as well as the very top (the place of the second coming, or Resurrection). The lower branches, originating from the figure of Jacob the Patriarch, correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel, and the top branches, radiating from the image of Jesus Christ, symbolize the twelve Christian churches.

Brain and Body

Alesha Sivartha, The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man, 1912

Density Design: Mario Porpora

The Poverty Red Thread, 2008

A map of the poverty line in Italy organized according to family typologies (number of family members), and further categorized by location (the north, center, or south of Italy).

Martin Krzywinski

Circos, 2005

A visualization of chromosomal relationships within one genome.

Stefanie Posavec

Writing Without Words, 2008

A chart of the structure of part one of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). Each splitting of the branch into progressively smaller sections parallels the organization of the content from chapters to paragraphs, sentences, and words. Each color relates to one of eleven thematic categories created by Posavec for the book (e.g., travel, work and survival, sketches of regional life).

(More on Posavec’s brilliant project here.)

Christoper Paul Baker

Email Map, 2007

A rendering of the relationships between Baker and individuals in his address book generated by examining the to, from, and cc fields of every email in his in-box archive.

Chris Harrison

Visualizing the Bible, 2007

A map of the 63,779 cross-references found in the Bible. The bar graph on the bottom represents all of the books in the Bible, alternating between white and light gray for easy differentiation. The length of each bar, representative of a book's chapter and dropping below the datum, corresponds to the number of verses in that chapter. Each arc represents a textual cross-reference (e.g., place, person), and the color denotes the distance between the two chapters where the reference appears -- ultimately creating a rainbowlike effect.

One of the year’s most exciting volumes, Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information makes a winsome addition to these essential books on data visualization and a powerful tool in your visual literacy arsenal for navigating the Information Age.

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22 AUGUST, 2011

Understanding Urbanity: 7 Must-Read Books About Cities

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What airports have to do with Medieval towns, Brooklyn’s bookstores and Le Corbusier.

“Cities are the crucible of civilization,” proclaimed Geoffrey West at last month’s TED Global. Cities are where most of humanity’s creative and intellectual ideation, communication, and innovation takes place, so understanding cities is vital to understanding our civilization. To help do that, here is an omnibus of seven fantastic books exploring the complex and faceted nature, function, history, and future of urbanity’s precious living organism, from design to sociology to economics and beyond.

WHO’S YOUR CITY

Richard Florida, apart from being one of the most continuously stimulating people to follow on Twitter and a fellow contributor to The Atlantic, is also one of the most insightful people writing and thinking about cities today. In Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, he examines the macro elements of cities, from economy to transportation, through the micro lens of personal happiness. (Which, in fact, makes the book a fine addition to this reading list of essential books on happiness.) Florida blends heavy-duty statistics and theory with passionately argued ideas and fascinating maps to expose the power of place in its richest, most multidimensional form, revealing the intricate interplay between our cities, our personalities, and our very sense of self and well-being.

The so-called death of place is hardly a new story. First the railroad revolutionized trade and transport like never before. Then the telephone made everyone feel connected and closer. The automobile was invented, then the airplane, and then the World Wide Web — perhaps the quintessential product of a globalized world. All of these technologies have carried the promise of a boundless world. They would free us from geography, allowing us to move out of crowded cities and into lives of our own bucolic choosing. Forget the past, when cities and civilizations were confined to fertile soil, natural ports, or raw materials. In today’s high-tech world, we are free to live wherever we want. Place, according to this increasingly popular view, is irrelevant.

It’s a compelling notion, but it’s wrong. Today’s key economic factors — talent, innovation, and creativity — are not distributed evenly across the global economy. They concentrate in specific locations.”

Ultimately, Who’s Your City?, offers an intelligent blueprint for balancing the trade-offs of place and personality to find, or learn to enjoy, the city and community best tailored to your life, your responsibilities, and your aspirations.

THE CITY IN HISTORY

Originally published in 1952, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects by prolific author Lewis Mumford traces the evolution of the urban form throughout human civilization, from the earliest tribal habitats to the towns of the Middle Ages to the vintage-modern commerce hubs of the 1950s. From keenly analyzing the past to accurately assessing the future, Mumford’s insights half a century ago presaged some of the most pressing conversation about cities occupying today’s urbanists, scholars, and civic leaders.

By building up sub-centers, based on pedestrian circulation, within the metropolitan region, a good part of urban transportation difficulties could have been obviated. To make the necessary journeys about the metropolis swift and efficient the number of unnecessary journeys–and the amount of their unnecessary length–must be decreased. Only by bringing work and home closer together can this be achieved.”

But beneath his astute observations of all the ways in which we could (and did) screw up our cities lies an undercurrent of breathless optimism about our capacity for wisdom, betterment, and moral imagination:

But happily life has one predictable attribute: it is full of surprises. At the last moment–and our generation may in fact be close to the last moment–the purposes and projects that will redeem our present aimless dynamism may gain the upper hand. When that happens, obstacles that now seem insuperable will melt away; and the vast sums of money and energy, the massive efforts of science and technics, which now go into the building of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and a hundred other cunning devices directly or indirectly attached to dehumanized and demoralized goals, will be released for the recultivation of the earth and the rebuilding of cities: above all, for the replenishment of the human personality. If once the sterile dreams and sadistic nightmares that obsess the ruling elite are banished, there will be such a release of human vitality as will make the Renascence seem almost a stillbirth.”

ZINESTER’S GUIDE TO NYC

The Zinester’s Guide to NYC is no ordinary city guide. In the age of crowdsourcing and digital everything, it’s a delightfully analog, painstakingly curated tour of all the things that make the Big Apple a cross-cultural icon. From Brooklyn’s bookstores to the midday madness of Midtown to the peculiar cultures of different neighborhoods, ZG2NYC is a remarkable achievement of urban curiosity, beautifully illustrated with original artwork, spanning everything from architecture to art to culinary curiosity and beyond. In the eloquently laconic words of Stephen Colbert’s review, “it kicks ass.”

For sure, use your device to double check addresses and hours, but then stash it, man! Your eyes and ears and nose remain excellent portals for receiving, interpreting, and storing information. I get that it could be fun to review your email on the subway, but if you’re always doing that, you are never going to sketch the person seated across from you. Ten years from now, which will prove the better key to this long forgotten day? A deleted digital message (received on a no doubt archaic device) or an inexpert but keenly observed rendering born of being wholly present in the exterior word?

Don’t miss our offbeat interview with Halliday, accompanied by more images from the book.

AEROTROPOLIS

For much of human civilization, cities — the places where people gather around and exchange money, goods, and ideas — have been defined by transportation hubs, from ports to railway stations. In Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, academic researcher and urban adviser John Kasarda and journalist Greg Lindsay examine today’s most important transit hub, the airport, as an epicenter of tomorrow’s civilization in the shape of the “aerotropolis” — a combination of enormous airport, planned metropolis, and commerce cluster. Both radical and practical, the aerotropolis lives at the intersection of urbanism, civic engineering, sociology, international relations, economics, cartography, and design to offer a compelling vision for our emergent urban future.

The aerotropolis is the urban incarnation of [the] physical Internet; the primacy of air transport makes airports and their hinterlands the places to see how it functions — and to observe the consequences. The three rules of real estate have changed from location, location, location to accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. There’s a new metric. It’s no longer space; it’s time and cost. And if you look closely at the aerotropolis, what appears to be sprawl is slowly evolving into a system of reducing both. It’s here where we can see how globalization will reshape our cities, lives, and culture.”

Amazon has an excellent Q&A with Lindsay.

Thanks, Sean

TRIUMPH OF THE CITY

Thirty-six million people inhabit the greater Tokyo area, the world’s most productive city, and nearly 70% of the U.S. population live in 3% of the country’s land area, yet we do so with the constant civic guilt, perpetuated by the media, about the wasteful, unhealthy, crime-ridden, ecologically unreasonable ways of city life. In Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, pioneering urban economist Edward Glaeser debunks a number of popular myths about the ills of cities to reveal, through examples past and present, how and why cities can in fact be a model for optimal well-being, both human and of the environment. (Did you know that urbanites use 40% less energy than their suburban counterparts, and both cancer and heart disease are significantly lower in New York City than the American national average?)

The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must hold on to these truths and dispatch harmful myths. We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES

Jane Jacobs is easily history’s most important writer in urban planning. Her massively influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, originally published in 1961, is a book so central to the last half-century of urbanism that it’s almost an embarrassment to mention it in any kind of introductory context. Rather than a hapless attack on then-new planning policies and their negative impact on inner-city communities, Jacobs offers an intelligent, constructive critique that proposes new principles for planning and rebuilding smart, functional cities, debunking the widely held belief that if only we had enough money, we’d wipe out the slums, reverse urban decay, anchor the wandering tax money of the middle class, and even solve the traffic problem — a belief, mind you, that has metastasized all more dangerously in contemporary culture, some half a century later.

But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.”

In addition to the meat of the book, buried in its first pages is Jacobs’ curious aside about illustration, alluding to the creative medium’s role as a sensemaking mechanism for the world:

The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might also listen, linger and think about what you see.”

MAKESHIFT METROPOLIS

While the work of Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford may have shaped generations of thinking about cities, much has changed since their ideas were coined half a century ago as our technology, economic mechanisms, design processes, and political priorities have evolved. In Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, University of Pennsylvania urbanism professor and Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski explores what these changes mean for envisioning the optimal city of tomorrow. Rybczynski, who 16 years ago started teaching design and development to MBAs and real estate majors at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, summarizes what he has learned about city planning and urban development through data-driven insights about the present and future of cities at the intersection of sociology, design, and behavioral economics, as well as fascinating urban innovation projects from around the world that challenge the definition of a city in an era of changing human demands and resource availability.

From Mumford to Jacobs, from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright, from public parks to high-tech skyscrapers, from Buffalo to Boston, Rybczynski spans an incredible spectrum of material to explain why we behave the way we behave, live the way we live, and choose what we choose — and, more importantly, how these seminal ideas about cities can be built upon to shape the 21st-century city, with all its liveliness, heterogeneity, and multifunctionality.

Is a city the result of design intentions, or of market forces, or a bit of both? These are the questions I explore in this book.”

Intelligent and highly readable, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities embodies the Brain Pickings ethos of cross-disciplinary curiosity, of lateral connections, of knowing and understanding the thinking of the past in order to envision and frame the ideas of the future.

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